Sometimes an ingredient or cooking term comes up that you’ve never seen before. It may be completely new to you, or it may just have a different name where the author comes from. I’ll try to capture as many as I can here to help you discover something new, or just overcome a bit of uncertainty.
Aromatics are ingredients, mainly vegetables, that bring deep flavour and aroma to a dish when heated. The are usually sauteed or sweated at the beginning of the recipe.
They are so common that they have a specific combination and a name in many cuisines, such as:
- the Italian soffritto of onion, carrot and celery.
- the French mirepoix, also onion, carrot and celery.
- the cajun Holy Trinity of onion, celery and green bell pepper/capsicum.
The most common aromatics are onions (including leeks, green onions, etc), garlic, carrot, celery, chilli, ginger and bell peppers/capsicum.
Everyone knows what cream is, right? It seems simple enough, but there are a number of different types in most countries. And once you cross a border, you’ve suddenly got a whole different range of cream products, or similar products with completely different names!
The most important difference amongst the different types of cream is the milk fat content. Cream has more fat than milk, hence its creaminess. But all creams are not created equal.
It may sound like it won’t matter too much, but choosing a very different cream product could result in your sauce splitting, or your whipped cream, well, not!
I’ve listed a few common cream varieties that appear in recipes. Wikipedia has a great page if you’re looking for a more comprehensive breakdown of cream types across different countries.
Half and Half
Half and Half is a blend made of 50% milk and 50% heavy cream. It’s popular in coffee and tea in the US, where it typically has around 12% milk fat.
Half and half is very uncommon outside of North America, and there’s some variation in fat content between the US and different parts of Canada.
If you can’t get half and half, you can make it by combining equal parts whole/full fat milk and heavy/whipping cream.
Heavy cream is a pure cream with a minimum of 36% milk fat. It is ideal for whipping.
The name heavy cream is uncommon outside the US, but there are almost identical products in most countries, commonly known as whipping cream.
The Maillard reaction is the complex chemical reaction that causes meat and other foods to brown when cooked over high heat.
The reaction is responsible for the creation of new molecules, which deliver the delicious flavour, mouth-watering aroma and characteristic colour of browned meat. It is a complex reaction, requiring fairly specific conditions and creating different molecules the longer it continues.
The most important condition to kick off the Maillard reaction is high heat. The surface of the food needs to reach about 300°F/150°C before browning will occur. This is the main reason for the second condition.
The second condition is moisture. If the food is damp it can’t reach the temperature required because the water can’t get hotter than 212°F/100°C. As a result, the food boils, giving meat a gray colour. This is what happens when you overcrowd your pan. The water escaping the food can’t get away, so the food steams in the moisture trapped between it and the pan. This is why it’s so important to have space around food in your pan, especially if you’re hoping to brown it. Patting the meat dry before cooking will help as well.
If you’re keen to learn more, Serious Eats have a great overview of the Maillard reaction.
In Indian cuisine a masala is a spice mix in specific proportions intended to be used for a particular dish or ingredient (e.g. mutton). It can be a dry spice mix, or a paste.
The ingredients in a masala can vary widely. Common inclusions are spices such as turmeric, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom and mustard seed, but there are many, many more.
The term curry powder, used extensively in the west, refers to one type of Indian masala.
If you haven’t used one before, a meat thermometer is a device with a long, slender probe that you insert into meat to measure its internal temperature.
There are instant-read models that you insert briefly to check, and oven-safe models you can leave in the meat to monitor it while it cooks.
Trust me, once you’ve used one, you’ll never go back. They are useful for so many dishes, but especially roast meats. I use this digital fast-reading meat thermometer, and it works brilliantly, giving me the exact internal temperature in about five seconds.
How to use a meat thermometer
There are some tricks to using a meat thermometer. In particular, where you should insert it to get the most meaningful measurements. To get accurate readings, you need to ensure your thermometer probe:
- is inserted into the thickest part of the meat you’re measuring
- is inserted deeply into the middle, not just below the surface
- doesn’t touch, or even come too close to, bone. This is because bone heats, and holds heat, differently to meat. If your probe is too close to bone you will get inaccurate readings.
A roux is made by cooking flour in a fat. It’s primary role is to thicken sauces, gravies, and other dishes. It also adds richness and flavour to a dish, depending on how long it is cooked.
Roux is the foundation of many famous sauces and dishes. Bechamel, the white sauce that underpins so many dishes, is basically milk added to a roux. Similarly, gravy is stock or broth added to a roux.
A roux can be cooked to differing levels, changing it’s impact on the flavour of a dish. At the most basic level, called a white roux, it is only cooked long enough to remove the raw flour taste. Apart from its thickening effect, this will only add richness to a dish, not a particular flavour. As a roux is cooked longer, it darkens, and begins to add more taste, typically described as nutty, to the dish. Darker roux also have less of a thickening effect than lighter ones.
A typical roux is made up of clarified butter and flour in equal parts by weight, although any other cooking fat can be used in place of the butter.
Be aware that some fats like margarine or whole butter are not 100% fat, so will lose some weight (due to evaporated water) as they cook. This means you’ll need a little bit more to get equal parts fat and flour by weight.
Also, some fats, like whole butter, have lower smoke points than others, and so are easier to burn if you’re making a darker roux. For this reason, the darkest roux are often made with higher smoke point fats like vegetable oil.
Tomatoes – shelf/pantry
There are a number of different types of tomatoes available in cans, jars, bottle or even tubes. Some of these products are the same across different countries, some have different names and some are unique to their local region.
Passata is made by pureeing and straining ripe, uncooked tomatoes. It has a thick but pourable consistency and provides a stronger tomato flavour than tinned tomatoes, and a fresher tomato flavour than tomato paste, or tomato sauce (US & Canada).
Passata is known as tomato puree in the US.
Tomato Sauce (North America)
In the US & Canada, tomato sauce is made by pureeing cooked tomatoes, and commonly includes other ingredients, such as garlic, herbs or chilli. It can be used directly as a pasta sauce, or as a tomato ingredient in a more substantial sauce (such as a bolognese sauce).
Tomato Sauce (UK, Australia & NZ)
In the UK, Australia & NZ, tomato sauce is the condiment known as ketchup in North America.
The thickest and most concentrated tomato product, paste/puree is made by cooking down pureed tomatoes. It has a strong tomato flavour and is typically used in tablespoon amounts. It brings a deep tomato taste to a dish, and if often used in combination with another tomato product (e.g. passata) or with fresh tomatoes.
Worcestershire Sauce is a tangy, savoury sauce made from vinegar, anchovies, molasses and tamarind. It appears commonly in recipes to add a punch of umami to a dish. Although it originates from England, it is available widely around the world.